Children were encouraged to help out by potato picking.
To help the war effort, children were allowed a two-week October holiday. Normally they had one week which was always referred to as “Blackberry Week”. The Government had realised that the shortage of farm workers was causing a problem so children were encouraged to help out by spending the two weeks “potato picking”.
I was 12 years and 6 weeks at the time. A fellow pupil who lived at Seaton Sluice (I lived in Whitley Bay) invited me to join her picking potatoes at “Look Out” Farm, Seaton Sluice. It would entail a bus ride each day, there and back. The hours would be 8am-5pm, half an hour for lunch (bring your own), 5 days a week for 2/6d per day (12½p) plus a stone of potatoes. I borrowed my bus fare from my mother (to be paid back Friday – pay day).
Monday morning of my first day I had to travel on the 7am bus, met at Seaton Sluice by my friend Margaret and then walked to the farm, signed on with the local youngsters and women (I was the only foreigner), walked to the field where the tractor and driver were already digging up rows of potatoes. We were each given a sack which we dragged along the ground, throwing potatoes in. At the end of the row the potatoes were emptied into a trailer.
The women all wore long black skirts with Hessian tied round, rather like an apron. I was told the length of skirt was for modesty when they bent over. We were advised to dig our nails into soap to avoid soil getting under our nails as soil was difficult to remove. On the first and also the second evening it was impossible to straighten up, in fact at end of each row it was debatable which was best to stand up or crawl round to the next row.
Walking from the bus at the end of the day carrying the stone of potatoes, unable to straighten up, I must have looked peculiar. However, by Wednesday I was fine, I had adjusted to the bending over but it had taken two whole days. Come Friday at 4.30 pm we lined up in front of a long trestle table out in the farmyard, our names were called and ticked off. Five days at 2/6d per day, 12/6d (62½p). After repaying the loan from my mother 2/6d (12½p) fares for the week I was left with 10/- (50p) which was a lot of money for a 12 year old in 1940. I was ready to starting the following Monday.
The women were paid more than the children. They certainly worked hard and must have picked at least 4 times more potatoes than the children they also, at times, kept us in check. The chat and humour never stopped, jokes were both played and told although, I must admit, some went over my head.
One incident happened when we were walking along a farm track after a day work, hedges of mainly hawthorn bushes on either side. When there was a shout that a herd of bullocks had broken out of their field and were heading our way, then round the bend came a galloping herd of bullocks. Everyone made a running dive through the hedge. Talk about “looking as if you had gone through a hedge backwards” and the language were rather ripe from some of the women. By the time we had extracted ourselves from the hedge (it was unbelievable that no one was hurt) scratches, torn clothes, hair full of leaves, twigs but no broken bones. Everyone but me just had to walk home, I had to travel on a bus and walk through the centre of Whitley Bay. My mother’s face when I arrived home was unforgettable, gob smacked we would say today.
The above was my first experience of “war effort” but not the last, nor was I the only one, all school children and workers in “Reserved Occupations” helped on the land during yearly holidays. Children picked rosehips, the Government paid 4/- (20p) per stone to the school. Rosehip syrup was provided free to the children under 5 at the local health clinics. This practice was stopped some years ago at dentists’ request. It was said the syrup damaged first teeth, yet it was classed as essential for vitamin C during previous war years and some years later (progress).
Recycle was salvage during the war. As make do and mend in the north it had always been called good housekeeping.